Film companion lagaan mughal e azam

Before I fell in love with Hindi films, I fell in love with the Hindi film industry. In 1989, straight out of college, I got a job with the now-defunct Movie magazine. But I wasn’t deeply interested in the movies. I lived in South Bombay (as it was known then). Even though my mother Kamna Chandra wrote Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog (1982) and Yash Chopra’s Chandni (1989), we didn’t watch too many Hindi films. We preferred the infinitely cooler experience of Hollywood in the rarefied setting of theatres like Metro and Sterling. The magazine job was supposed to be a diversion, a stop-gap until I figured out what I really wanted to do. In a few months, I understood that I had found my calling.

I fell in love hard, not so much with the artistry of Hindi film but with the intoxication of the film industry. It was gaudy and chaotic but also instantly seductive. The personalities were outsized. The environment was so informal and porous that on the pretext of an interview, you could spend hours hanging out with stars. The proximity to fame was heady. It was like having front-row seats to a colourful, constantly dazzling Broadway show. There was action in every corner of the stage.

My love for the industry evolved into a passion for film, which has defined most of my adult life. My appetite grew to encompass movies of every genre, language, shape and size. Meanwhile, the industry metamorphosed into Bollywood. It no longer functioned like the Wild West. The bazaar style-working was slowly replaced by studios, multiplexes and publicly traded companies. Bound scripts, contracts, agents, minders, publicists, entourages became part of the landscape. What was once considered, literally and metaphorically, an ‘andhere ka dhanda,’ became legitimate.

Over the last 25 years, Bollywood has attained, what New York University anthropologist Dr. Tejaswini Ganti, calls, cultural legitimacy. Which means an acceptance from sectors of society that haven’t been their traditional audience base. The moniker might be contentious but there is little doubt that Bollywood is the subcontinent’s most distinctive cultural marker. No matter where I travel, when I say that I’m from India, the response is invariably, “Aah…Bollywood.” In 2013, I attended the Marrakech International Film Festival. When I told my hair stylist that I’m Indian, he started singing, “Tujhe dekha to yeh jana sanam…”  He, like most of the country, was besotted with Shah Rukh Khan. Bollywood, once seen as kitschy, third-world cinema, slowly came to be recognized as a vibrant and profoundly popular art form.

But Bollywood has never just been a style of filmmaking. It’s a culture and a religion. Literally – fans have built temples for actors like Shah Rukh and Amitabh Bachchan. Over the years, Hindi films have taught us how to love, what to wear, how to style our hair. They have shaped our dreams and aspirations and gifted us with boundless pleasure. I experience it each time I see the beauteous Madhubala as Anarkali defying a thunderous emperor as she sings ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’ in Mughal-e-Azam. Or when Veeru sways drunkenly from the water tank in Sholay. Or when Raj and Simran reunite in that field in Punjab to the strains of ‘Tujhe Dekha To’. Or when Bhuvan hits that winning six in Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. Or when Kabir Khan’s rakshason ki sena lifts the women’s hockey World Cup in Chak De! India. Or when Poo pouts in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and declares: Tell me how it was! I don’t know about you but my life would be infinitely less magical and less joyous without Hindi films.

I say this as a person whose profession it is to criticize. For almost thirty years now, I have railed against its shortcomings – both in the movies and the business. There are raging problems that need fixing, especially in the industry. Everything Bollywood has been accused of in the last few months – discrimination, drugs, favouritism, nepotism, short-sightedness, cowardice, greed, vanity, arrogance – could be true. As it is for the rest of the country and every other ecosystem – business, sports, politics, tech. The Hindi film industry is not a hotbed of sin, polluting an otherwise pristine nation.

But since the tragic demise of Sushant Singh Rajput, Bollywood has come under siege. The attack has been unstinting, slanderous and specious. I’ve seen the industry go through terrible times – the mafia years in the late 90s and early 2000s were especially hard. But this current viciousness and hate, furthered by the media, social media and paid trolls, is new and bewildering. The high-decibel narrative portrays the film industry like the decadent Roman Empire, in the last days before its collapse.

I’ve seen the industry go through terrible times – the mafia years in the late 90s and early 2000s were especially hard. But this current viciousness and hate, furthered by the media, social media and paid trolls, is new and bewildering.

It would be comical if it weren’t so sad. This is an industry built on sweat and ambition, tears and dreams. According to the Deloitte-MPA Report, ‘Economic Impact of the Film, Television and Online Video Services Industry in India,’ released in May, film and allied industries like television and streaming, make a contribution of 349,000 crore (direct and indirect) to the economy and employ approximately 26.6 lakh people (direct and indirect). And this does not include, as Nitin Tej Ahuja, CEO of the Producers Guild of India, points out, “the income of the Gwalior barber peddling Kartik Aaryan haircuts, the Jalandhar choreographer training bridesmaids to perform Didi Tera Devar Deewana or the Chandni Chowk tailor selling Simran lehengas.”

Hindi cinema permeates every aspect of our lives. And yet, the artists who create this cinema are being assaulted in ways that are hideous and heartbreaking. The men and women who have entertained us for decades have become collateral damage in a political war being waged by opportunists. The film industry has become a smoke screen, being used to obfuscate. It’s graceless and dangerous and sadly, there seems to be no end in sight.

But the next time you pronounce judgement or click, in gleeful anticipation, on an article that claims to reveal sensational details about the filth in the film industry, remember that their art has nourished your life. This is a business teeming with bright, hardworking, talented people. And the show will go on. As it always does.

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